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Seized Iranian Ship Scuttled by U.S. Forces : Sunk Off Bahrain; Weinberger Tours Warships in Gulf

September 26, 1987|From Times Wire Services

MANAMA, Bahrain — An Iranian ship captured while laying mines in the Persian Gulf was scuttled early today by U.S. servicemen.

The 180-foot, 1,662-ton Iran Ajr was towed to deep waters off Bahrain after explosive charges had been placed in the landing craft's hull. U.S. military officials said the vessel sank quickly after the charges were detonated.

"The ship was sunk in a location where it will pose no hazard to shipping," one official said.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger announced on Friday that the vessel would be blown up and that the United States would tolerate no more mining of the strategic waterway.

"We're very hopeful that this one episode will be a sufficient warning so that they will stop it, but we are not going to go on the basis of hopes," Weinberger said during a tour of U.S. warships in the gulf.

Asked whether Iranian officials had been advised that the Iran Ajr was to be destroyed, he said, "They'll see it when she goes up, or down, I should say. . . . It certainly will not be handed back so that it can engage in further activities," he said.

Boisterous applause, cheers and whistles rattled through the cavernous well deck of the U.S. command ship La Salle where Weinberger met about 200 sailors and informed them of the fate of the Iranian vessel.

Begins Five-Day Tour

The Iran Ajr was captured by Navy personnel Monday night after U.S. Army helicopters fired on the ship after it was found to be planting mines in international waters in the Persian Gulf.

Five Iranians were killed when the ship was captured and 26 sailors, including four wounded, were taken into U.S. custody. The survivors are to be repatriated to Iran today by way of Oman under the supervision of the Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross.

Weinberger, beginning a five-day tour of the region, visited three of the 11 ships assigned to the Middle East Force, the Navy's gulf-based escort squadron.

He viewed nine mines found intact aboard the Iran Ajr and said several more mines were located around the area. Navy demolition experts blew up one mine when Weinberger was aboard the nearby La Salle.

After viewing the mines, Weinberger poked fun at Iran's official story that the ship was carrying only a cargo of food.

Some Heavy Groceries

"As you can see, that's the heaviest load of groceries anybody has ever seen," Weinberger said. The Iranians, he added, "simply will not admit they've been engaging in this pack of lies."

Asked if he thought the U.S. action would raise tensions in the gulf, Weinberger said, "You've got to bear in mind that the pot's been stirred up pretty thoroughly since 1979, (the year Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was ousted in the Iranian Revolution) and nothing has happened to give any hope of getting it over."

He said he hopes that Iran will heed the multinational military presence in the gulf and the threat of an arms embargo if it ignores a U.N. resolution demanding a cease-fire.

Asked how U.S. citizens would react if U.S. forces suffered reversals in the Administration's program of providing protection for reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, Weinberger said, "I would hope that the political will of the United States is as strong as the men out here defending us."

11 Tankers Escorted

The Navy began escorting 11 reflagged Kuwaiti tankers last July to protect them from Iran, which considers Kuwait an ally of Iraq. Both Iran and Iraq have attacked foreign ships in their seven-year war.

The Reagan Administration has vowed to keep the Persian Gulf open to navigation. About 20% of the non-communist world's oil passes through the gulf.

Weinberger told the ships' crews that President Reagan thanked them for their efforts, "not only for the United States, but for our allies and indeed for all the countries interested in freedom." He called the capture of the Iran Ajr "an extraordinarily effective achievement."

Weinberger said Washington was coordinating with other nations with minesweepers either in the gulf or en route about how to divide up the task of searching for the explosives.

Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands are sending minesweepers. The United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union already have minesweepers in the gulf.

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